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Lord Bowness: Sorry, I am not very good at numbers.

Lord Whitty: That could explain a lot. Such developments as might follow the establishment of regional assemblies are beyond the scope of our discussion today. We believe it right for the Bill to stick with the principle of nine. I underline that there are to be nine regional development agencies for England, including the London agency.

There is an additional meso-economic point, as I believe it is called in the jargon. The main pressure would not be for the merger of regions; it would be for the splitting of regions. I know that it is superficially easy to argue that sub-regional identity is stronger than regional identity and that RDAs serving smaller regions should therefore be permitted. However, that rather misses the economic point of what we are attempting to do in relation to RDAs.

All the evidence we have seen from other members of the European Union in regard to the development of regional policies indicates that in order to be an effective economic unit--and we are talking only of economic instruments--regions need to be large and influential

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enough to make a difference to regional economies and to the contribution that those economies make to the national and European economy. A certain scale and a certain level of economic generation are needed to improve competitiveness and to make a regional approach to economic and industrial policy work.

That does not of course mean that we cannot have sub-regional sects within a regional development agency framework. Of course we can, for particular purposes where it makes sense to do so in particular sectors and for particular products. That would be a matter for each RDA to decide over time. But where regional policy has worked and where there has been an effective study of the matter, the evidence suggests that regions should probably be slightly larger than the smaller region we have included, which represents over 2 million people. Any area smaller than that would not be able to achieve the economies of scale and economic performance we are looking for as a result of establishing the RDAs.

I have attempted to give one or two additional reasons for not accepting the proposal. If the noble Lord's objection is basically that the Government's view is being imposed from above, I assure him that all those whom my honourable friend Dick Caborn has consulted and continues to consult in establishing the RDAs also believe that it is necessary to provide that stability and certainty to make the RDAs work. Telling everyone concerned, including those who are doubtfully involved at the edges but who have now begun to see the advantage of these structures, and giving the impression that in five years' time the whole matter will be thrown up in the air again, would not be helpful. Therefore, while I understand some of the noble Lord's arguments, it would not be sensible to alter the Bill in this respect. I therefore ask him to withdraw his amendment.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. My argument is not about regional assemblies. I accept the Minister's remark that he is not endeavouring to pre-empt the discussion. My concern is that, as a matter of fact, in setting up these structures and determining that at no stage can the numbers be changed we are, whether we wish it or not, pre-empting those decisions.

I accept that people are working together to make these structures work. People tend to do that. They are not destructive. Of course they work together; they have no alternative. There are already chairmen-designate of the regional development agencies. Matters have gone on apace, notwithstanding the fact that we are still debating the Bill in your Lordships' House today. People will make the best of it. My point is that I am not convinced that one can say with certainty that these regions, established by the previous government for central government purposes, are the right areas in which to try to achieve the objectives of the regional development agencies as set out in the White Paper.

I am intrigued by the Minister's suggestion that the regions must be this size in order to be effective economic units. The core functions and the issues to which they will contribute--the policies and

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programmes on transport, land use, environment, further and higher education, crime prevention, public health, housing, tourism, culture, sport and infrastructure--are all matters which would normally relate to local government. Certainly, there are structures which are much smaller than the proposed regional development agencies that deliver policies and programmes on these issues.

I listened with care to the Minister. I shall read and reflect upon what he said and talk to other people. I may return to the matter at another stage, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton moved Amendment No. 15:

Page 16, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) An order made under subsection (1)(c) shall in particular make provision for sustaining a network of rural volunteer organisations throughout rural England that will act to reduce social and economic exclusion in all rural areas.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 15, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 16. At Committee stage I expressed anxieties about the future and the funding of rural community councils, a rather smaller issue than that dealt with by the previous amendment but nevertheless important. I was grateful for the assurance given by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who said that she hoped she had given the degree of assurance sought. I am afraid that she had not entirely done so, hence my amendments.

The second of the amendments, Amendment No. 16, is a probing amendment which suggests that funding for rural community councils could come from a national agency, which, by definition, means not a regional agency. I wonder whether any decision has yet been made as to which agency or agencies will be responsible for this funding and what the parameters will be. If it is to be undertaken by a national organisation, that could be the new countryside agency; or it could be ACRE, the charity that is owned by the rural community councils, which would be an interesting alternative.

The first of my amendments, Amendment No. 15, is the more important one. It seeks to put on the face of the Bill what are effectively the objectives of the rural community councils, to ensure that these bodies are retained and that they continue to be used by the new agency or agencies in the way that they have been in the past. Rural community councils have been the eyes and ears locally for the Rural Development Commission. It is acknowledged that the Rural Development Commission has been a highly authoritative source of information on the rural sector and its needs, and that is very important to the rural areas.

I do not need to say much about rural community councils themselves, since I believe that most noble Lords will know about them. Most counties have one. They are all registered charities which guide a great deal of voluntary effort and bring together statutory authorities and voluntary organisations to look after the

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needs of rural communities. I am sure that it is not necessary to list their various functions. I believe that they come cheap at the price because of the voluntary element of their work. Core funding comes from local government as well as from the Rural Development Commission.

It is not clear at present how the rural community councils will fit in with the two new agencies. However that works out, it seems imperative that the respective roles of the two bodies should be complementary and clearly defined. Meanwhile the social work of helping rural communities must continue in the long term, preferably more strongly than before, particularly bearing in mind the sombre agricultural outlook at present. However, to me the omens do not look favourable.

The question of how to break up the Rural Development Commission is not a simple one. I do not know what further news there is about that. Parallel with the passage of the Bill through Parliament, much discussion has taken place about the future of the agencies and of the rural community councils. I am not happy about the outlook for that.

It appears that the funds of the rural development agencies are to be targeted on a small number of closely defined areas of social disadvantage. My concern is that that hardly meets the rural case, where often small pockets of need exist across substantial rural areas. If the rural development agencies are to pick up this task, I believe that big changes will be needed to the current thinking on how their assistance will be targeted, and I wonder how much would be left over for scattered rural needs after the main targets had been satisfied.

The grapevine tells me that the merger between the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission seems more like a takeover than a merger, and I fear that there may be a difference of culture between the two. The Countryside Commission began its life by managing national parks. I do not believe that it was entirely popular in the way it did that, but I will let that pass. Its field of operations since then has been environmental protection and enhancement and access to the countryside. It has concentrated on those. It is quite a different field from the Rural Development Commission, which has dealt with people. It has been very successful in dealing with people because it works through the rural community councils. There was always each-way communication. We do not want to change that. We do not want to change to a top-down type of organisation. I would not wish to see such things as demonstration projects, initiated from on high, or short-term, pump-priming approaches to different projects from time to time.

I do not feel too happy about the prospectus for the new agency, on the grounds that I have mentioned. There seems to be no reassurance that the new agency will commit sufficient funds over the long term to equal the Rural Development Commission's achievements. Too much of the prospectus looks like proposals for research projects or exhortations to others. This has its place, but the ability of the new organisation to exhort others will be dependent on its long-term understanding

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of the rural issues. It will need an ear to the ground. That ear to the ground is the rural community councils. That should be understood by all, particularly those making reports and involved in negotiations about the new organisation.

I would like to see this amendment, or something very like it, on the face of the Bill. I hope that the noble Baroness will appreciate the merits of the amendment. I beg to move.

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